Last year, consumers spent $10.69 billion in various retail locations on Black Friday, but according to Cinda Baxter, a retail consultant, most Black Friday sales go to large retailers with deep marketing budgets and the ability to discount inventory.
"Over the last 15 to 20 years, that golden day that used to be a make-it-or-break-it day for all brick and mortars has now turned into a big-box extravaganza," says Baxter. "It has turned Black Friday into one of the hardest days of the year for independent businesses to survive."
So in 2010, when American Express asked Baxter to help create what it calls "Small Business Saturday," a high-profile clarion call to urge consumers to patronize independent small businesses, she consented. After all, the message of "shop local" was something Baxter could get behind.
As it celebrates its second incarnation this year on November 26, 2011, the multi-city event appears to be gaining steam. At last week's launch event for this year's Small Business Saturday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg reiterated his support for the movement.
"Helping small businesses thrive is the biggest thing we can do to put our economy back on track. And that's because small businesses are the economic engines to our neighborhoods." —Michael Bloomberg
"Helping small businesses thrive is the biggest thing we can do to put our economy back on track," Bloomberg told the crowd. "And that's because small businesses are the economic engines to our neighborhoods."
But will the rhetoric of Small Business Saturday actually translate to sales for small business?
While experts and merchants are hopeful, one thing is clear: it certainly won't be a panacea for weak holiday sales.
Last year, for example, small merchants saw a 28 percent rise in sales on American Express cards on November 27, 2010, when compared to the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 2009. Overall, the retail industry saw a nine percent rise in spending on November 27, 2010. And while the campaign has drawn support from scores of elected officials and generated some 1.5 million Facebook fans, Julie Fajgenbaum, a vice president of brand marketing at American Express OPEN, admits that the event needs to go viral in order to succeed—on both a national and a local level.
"Last year we found that many small businesses created special offers, deals, and even created events on Small Business Saturday," she says. "To get the word out about their offers, deals, and events, we encourage them to use the Facebook page and community, and tweet using #SmallBizSat."
American Express has created incentives to participate, too. The first 10,000 business owners who sign up for Small Business Saturday on the company's Facebook page will receive $100 toward Facebook advertising, while customers who patronize participating shops receive a $25 statement credit if they buy at least $25 worth of merchandise (using an American Express card, of course). Last year, 200,000 people registered for the statement credit.
To be sure, the event is a heavily American Express-branded corporate event aimed at recruiting small business owners to sign up for the company's services. But small businesses owners seem to be supporting the concept of Small Business Saturday, if only tepidly, as a cause to rally behind.
Rachel Thebault, an investment banker-turned bakery owner who operates Tribeca Treats in New York City, said that beyond the dollar-credits offered by American Express, the real power behind the event is all the marketing and branding behind the "shop small" movement.
"The idea of Small Business Saturday is to remember the neighborhood guys that are out there," she says. "And not to stay up all night in the parking lot of a big box retailer—because there are other places you can support as well.